A problematic new typography book

This history of letter design looks appealing, but it's full of factual errors and snotty put-downs

Topics: Imprint, Design, Nonfiction,

A problematic new typography book

This is the second time I have tried to write a review of “Just My Type.” It is a frustrating book — warm and friendly on the surface but obnoxious underneath. The first time, I methodically tore it to pieces in my blue-pencil style, pointing out its deficiencies in niggling detail. When I was done, I felt satisfied but also uncomfortable. Did Simon Garfield really deserve such a bashing? After all, the book is full of fascinating stories and odd trivia about type, and the author has a charming, breezy style that makes each bit of typographic arcana easy to swallow. Is it really that bad?

Yes, it is. But articulating what it is exactly that enrages me about “JMT” is difficult. This is a book that the uninitiated will find enthralling and entertaining. But those who actually know something about type design and typography — two related subjects that Garfield frequently mixes up — will find it maddening. The factual mistakes are grounds for complaint, but on their own they are not enough to get upset about. Instead, it’s Garfield’s style that is the problem.

Garfield flits about from one topic to the next like a nervous hummingbird, without settling long enough to give any a proper telling. Instead, he regales us with witticisms (“And then there are tattoos: nothing says Menace quite like a word written in Old English”), snotty put-downs (“And calligraphy is virtually gone, a craft Prince Charles is said to be keen on, hanging on grimly behind glass on the qualification certificates of quantity surveyors and chiropractors”), and imperious (if dubious) pronouncements (“Cooper Black looks best from afar”). Even when these are utter nonsense, they are still enjoyable — so much so that they blind us to the fact that the stories frequently come up short.

Some are simply inaccurate. Garfield analyzes the use of Cooper Black on the cover of “Pet Sounds,” the 1966 Beach Boys album, to explain one difference between legibility and readability: the impact of size. His point is correct, but his example is not. Although the title of “Pet Sounds” is set in Cooper Black, the song titles — his example of how Cooper Black is “unreadable” at small sizes — are not. They are set in Clarendon. Elsewhere there is an account of the type designer Cyrus Highsmith’s attempt to get through an entire day in New York City without seeing Helvetica. It’s one of the best stories in “JMT.” Unfortunately, it’s not true. Highsmith has never lived in New York City, and his day without Helvetica was strictly a thought experiment. “I think if someone did it totally for real,” he told me, “it would end up with them naked, being chased by the police.”





Other anecdotes omit a crucial detail. The battle between Transport and MOT Serif for the right to be the official typeface of Britain’s motorways is framed as a referendum on legibility, yet Garfield does not make it clear which of several factors was decisive in the outcome: serif vs. sans serif, all capitals vs. upper- and lowercase, different theories of letterspacing, or the presence of symbols and pictograms. Although he calls them “beautifully wrought,” he never tells us the details of David Kindersley’s theories on the optical spacing of letters. Garfield says of MOT Serif “that it didn’t look as if it would withstand the increasingly scientific rigors of the road research labs.” Yet it won the duel — and lost the war. MOT Serif was determined to be more legible, but Transport was chosen over it on aesthetic grounds. Rather than parse the ramifications of this decision, Garfield rushes off to discuss subsequent type designs by Margaret Calvert, one of the creators of Transport. He never bothers to describe MOT Serif and how much it deviated from the traditional letters that Kindersley carved on gravestones.

(In detailing Garfield’s missteps in his account of the competition, I almost made a similar mistake of missing the bigger picture: that the competition wasn’t between two typefaces but between two signage systems. It was MOT Serif set in all caps and letterspaced according to Kindersley’s optical theories versus Kinneir and Calvert’s Transport set in upper- and lowercase letters, letterspaced their way and laid out with differing arrows and pictograms. What probably won the competition for Transport was not its aesthetic superiority — even though I agree that MOT Serif is damn ugly — but the overall design that Kinneir and Calvert presented. This story was more about typography than about type design.)


In

In “Road Akzidenz,” the chapter about the competition between MOT Serif (above) and Transport (below), Garfield misleadingly calls Transport a “lower-case sans serif” in the caption. The role the differing layouts played in the testing is not noted. (Photograph from the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop.)

Still other set pieces seem to miss the point entirely. Take, for instance, the chapter entitled “Pirates and Clones,” which is devoted to a subject that has long stirred passions among type designers. But Garfield leaves out important information from several of his vignettes. For instance, in profiling Hermann Zapf, one of the most vocal critics of pirated typefaces, he never mentions the two designs (Palatino and Optima) at the heart of Zapf’s complaints. In a different vein, he tells us how Segoe UI “caused widespread disquiet in design circles” because of its “close relationship to Frutiger” but does not say what, if anything, happened as a result of this outrage. He shows us a (small) sample of Segoe UI, but without a comparable one of Frutiger, so we cannot easily form our own conclusions as to the relationship between the two fonts.

Nor does Garfield provide a framework for us to make such a judgment. He never gives a definition for a pirated or a cloned typeface. And he does not adequately describe the legal status of typefaces and how they fit into the worlds of copyright and moral rights. “The alphabet as a free-for-all is an appealing concept, not least for lawmakers who fear the restriction of free speech,” he says, before concluding the sentence with “(and the complex possibilities of distinguishing one lower-case ‘g’ from another).” Here in a nutshell is the problem with Garfield’s writing. The first part of the sentence makes an important point, but one which needs some explanation. Instead of giving us that explanation, we get a witty parenthetical comment about how hard it is to tell letters apart. This is a legitimate concern, but it was not the primary one behind the opposition in the United States Congress to granting copyright status to typefaces. The arguments both for and against are missing from Garfield’s chapter.

Third, Garfield fails to provide an adequate summary of the history of type piracy (which can be traced back to the 1470s), the various ways in which technological advances over the centuries have made such piracy easier and easier, and the attempts, often doomed, to protect typefaces from copying. Instead we get a flawed mention of electrotyping, scattered references to type foundries and type designers in the past who have been upset by others copying their typefaces, and snippets of two speeches Zapf gave in the 1970s on type piracy.

In the end, the point of the chapter — that typefaces deserve protection — is lost amidst a welter of individual stories told in a confusing and haphazard sequence. (I still don’t understand the point of Matthew Carter’s Elvin Jones/Buddy Rich story vis-à-vis pirated typefaces.) It is a point worth making. Those outside the insular world of type design — and that includes many in the design professions as well as everyday users of fonts — need to understand why typefaces should be protected and why, with a few exceptions, they have not been. Using stories of individual typefaces to tell this bigger story is fine, but these case studies need to be presented clearly, properly and in the right sequence. A discussion of Segoe UI needs to explain how it differs from Myriad and TheSans, two other fonts that have been accused of being copies of Frutiger. And the discussion should be linked, more directly than Garfield has done, to the debate over Arial. And all of this needs a broader context that takes into account the formation of the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI), the failed push for an international copyright law applied to typefaces, the United States Copyright Act of 1976, the debate over whether software is copyrightable, and the 1998 court case involving Adobe, Emigre and Southern Software. This may seem like a long, complex story, but in the right hands, it can be told clearly and succinctly. Certainly it can be told in the same amount of space that Garfield devotes to horror stories of abused typefaces and outraged designers. Garfield opted to entertain his readers. I wish he had chosen to inform them instead.

Garfield not only often misses the significance of his stories; he also fails to coherently gather the larger themes, including the relative popularity of particular typefaces, the appropriate uses of typefaces, legibility versus readability, the creative rights of type designers, typefaces and national identity, the role of type in society, and the tension between tradition and experimentation in type design and typography. For instance, the popularity/unpopularity issue shows up variously in “We Don’t Serve Your Type,” “Can a Font Make Me Popular?,” “Futura vs Verdana,” “What Is It About the Swiss?,” “Gotham Is Go,” and “The Worst Fonts in the World.” Legibility versus readability is present not only in the chapter of that name but in “Baskerville Is Dead (Long Live Baskerville),” “Road Akzidenz,” “Tunnel Visions,” “Frutiger,” “Can a Font Be German, or Jewish?,” and “Breaking the Rules.”

Garfield could have been more accurate in his facts, more cognizant of what really matters in a story, and more aware of the overarching themes that tie his stories together and still have produced a fun read. It would have been work, and he might have had to tone down his flamboyant writing, but it could have been done. “Just My Type” should have been a wonderful book. Instead it is a maddening disappointment.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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